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33 HOW TO BECOME A MODERATE SKEPTIC: HUME'S WAY OUT OF PYRRHONISM The nature and extent of Hume's skepticism have been assessed in various ways. He was viewed as a radical skeptic until the end of the XIXth century. Many contemporary interpretations, which can be traced back to Kemp Smith's book, have claimed since that a reassessment was indispensable if we are to take seriously either the very project of a science of human nature or Hume's naturalist conception of belief. The idea of a science of human nature presupposes that at least some sort of positive knowledge is possible. The naturalist conception of belief claims that some of our beliefs, though lacking rational justification, are nevertheless unavoidable and gain this way a certainty all their own. Both the Treatise of Human Nature in Book I and the Enquiry Concerning the Human Understanding -1 conclude with a moderate or mitigated skepticism after making a strong case for radical pyrrhonism. In this paper I wish to carry out two connected tasks: first I want to consider whether Hume's skepticism in the Treatise is the same as that of the Enquiry or not; second, I want to determine which arguments he puts forward for his shift from pyrrhonism to modern skepticism. The most noticeable differences between the Treatise and the Enquiry occur immediately after the analysis of causation. In the Enquiry we find almost nothing concerning the reality of the external world and the nature of the self, but Hume emphasizes heavily the 34 anti-metaphysical and anti-theological outcomes of the science of human nature in his sections on Liberty and Necessity (VIII), on Miracles (X), on Providence and a possible future state (XI). He stresses the devastating agnostic consequences of his principles and his agnosticism culminates in the dreadful censorship of the final lines of the book. On the contrary, the fourth part of the Treatise, Book I, offers an intricate and sophisticated treatment of various subjects. The intricacy shows in the very title of this part: "Of the Sceptical and Other Systems of Philosophy." Hume actually intertwines the exposition of his skeptical system — an expression which sounds odd — with the critical examination of rival systems and an attempt at accounting for the nature of things. These intricate undertakings are the direct upshot of Hume's analysis of causation. He thinks he has established that our causal beliefs are the products of custom alone and that nevertheless they are our only reliable beliefs. Lacking any rational justification, they are simply natural — which means that we cannot hinder ourselves from making inferences and predictions. Accordingly, reason has been immersed in the wider concept of imagination and thus naturalized: it is "nothing but a wonderful and unintelligible instinct in our souls" (T 179). Basically, some beliefs are unavoidable. Now, a crucial problem is to know how far we can go into the analysis of such natural beliefs. In the Treatise, Hume sets out to investigate some of them whereas in the Enquiry he is more prudent and merely talks of instincts without considering their mechanism. In the Treatise, the tentative analysis of these natural beliefs has important metaphysical outcomes. Using the concepts and principles of his new-born science of human nature, Hume provides us with 35 a new ontology which states the nature of things from the standpoint of our beliefs concerning it. Thus, we get a Humean version of the nature of the external world and of the nature of the self. Unfortunately, this assessment of what there is on the basis of what we believe there is has unwanted skeptical effects. Hume's "as if" ontology tends to appear definitely fictitious, all the more so because the analysis of our natural beliefs is not successful and even quite defective. So, the skeptical outcome pushes through the positive project itself as the failure to account for our natural beliefs shakes the very belief in their special reliability. Such is, for example, the blatant result of the study of our belief in the external world (T 217). Again, in the Treatise, Hume is eager to emphasize the devastating anti-metaphysical implications of his thought. Under the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 33-46
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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